Ten Great Science Museums: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology

By Sue Hubbell|Monday, November 01, 1993
I was in Guatemala on assignment a few years ago when a piece of my schedule came unglued, giving me four extra days to spend there. I used the time to go to Tikal to see the Mayan ruins excavated by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania. The guide I hired, whose face was a copy of those on the Mayan stelae, knew about the University of Pennsylvania. It was in Philadelphia, USA, he told me, and he wondered what the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology there was like. It is very beautiful, I told him. I used to live nearby and visited it many years ago. I tried, in the combination of Spanish and English we were using, to tell him what I remembered: the pearly natural light in the building, the intimacy of the display areas, the human scale of the museum, all of which combined to let a visitor feel a direct, comfortable connection with the makers of objects hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old. I told him the building had been designed by a famous architect and was a work of art in itself. He nodded, pleased.

When I got into a taxi at Thirtieth Street Station in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and told the driver I wanted to go to the University Museum, he wrinkled his forehead and asked, Is that the old pile of bricks across from the stadium? I gave him the cross streets-- Spruce and Thirty-third, reaching across 30 years to recall them. But he left me in front of the stadium anyway, so I walked the half-block in a gray, gentle rain. That gave me a chance to see from a distance the enfolding dark brick walls and the wrought-iron gate that lets visitors into the courtyard. I recaptured, as I went through them, the sense of shutting out the quotidian, of entering into timelessness.

It must have been the late 1950s or early 1960s when I first visited the museum. I was a newcomer to Philadelphia and had acquired from schooldays an interest in classical Greece and Mycenae. I came to see the museum’s collection, rich from its collecting days in those places early in this century. I returned many times to study the pots--red on black, black on red--thinking about the figures on them living their lives in the round. I had the time. I was mother to a young son, to be sure, but I had only a part-time job and was supported by a generous working husband. Later, when he decided to go back to school to earn a Ph.D. with only a modest teaching assistantship, I said I would take care of the money. I was 27 and full of energy. With a sense of adventure I returned to graduate school myself, to nearby Drexel, to get a quick master’s degree in library science. That year I went to school full-time, earned my degree, held three part-time jobs, and tried to be a good wife and mother. Looking back on it now, it seems remarkable that I used to find the odd half hour to go to the museum; it became my place of refuge.

By then I had moved on from my Ode on a Grecian Urn days. Those vase figures had come to seem too inward-dwelling. And the funerary exhibits--the famous collection of mummies, beloved by schoolchildren, and the overwhelming wealth from the royal tombs of Ur--unsettled me. The decorated vessels and the jewelry of beaten gold and lapis lazuli were too much of life put into death for a 27-year-old. So I would bypass them and connect with all that was steady and enduring in human life by looking at homely, everyday tools: bone needles, baskets, cooking pots made by people everywhere, a child’s toy fashioned by Pueblo hands long ago, small objects that I could take in. I was grateful to whoever it was that arranged the displays for giving these humble objects the space to be seen in the museum’s serene light. I would look at them and, calmed, return to my own increasingly fragmented life.

When I finished my degree I was offered several jobs, one of them in the library at the University Museum. I remember visiting it for my interview. It was a splendid room with a vaulted ceiling. Sunshine poured into it from the skylight and windows onto the golden oak floors, woodwork, and furniture. I was sure I would be happy working there, but the pay was low. (From its privately funded beginnings, the museum has always had to stretch its dollars. In the past, curators sometimes worked without any salary at all.) Mindful of the family I had to support, I accepted instead a better-paying job with one of the state colleges. That job also gave faculty rank and allowed me to work the academic year--with summers free to spend with my son. I’ve never regretted the decision, but it was one of those life choices that, once made, started me down a particular road. I’ll never know what was along the other.

On my most recent visit I found the room that had been the library now housing the museum’s archives, a million documents relating to expeditions and digs and describing the 1.5 million pieces in the collection. Unlike other museums, where objects are usually purchased, most of the items in this collection were acquired directly by university anthropologists and archeologists working at sites all over the world-- Giza, Tepe Gawra, Tikal, and Point Barrow among them. The old library room is darker now, lighted artificially. The skylight was covered over, as most skylights throughout the museum have been, for security purposes and because they had begun to leak. Happily, the skylight remains uncovered in the domed rotunda, and the gray glow from a rainy day delicately illumined below it a Chinese cloisonné lioness, her cub worrying her foot.

The museum was founded in 1887 when a group of wealthy Philadelphians proposed that the university sponsor an expedition to the Babylonian city of Nippur in what is now Iraq. Collections from it and other digs were housed on campus until 1899, when the present building was built from plans drawn primarily by Wilson Eyre. Eyre, an architect known for his design of private homes, used natural light streaming through arched windows and skylights and continuing through squares of glass floor, illuminating exhibition areas below. Although the skylight above it is still blocked, one of those glass floors has been restored at the top of the grand staircase just inside the main doors. It is made of shimmering blue-green glass blocks, bound in brass and lighted electrically, throwing a benign welcoming light on the reception foyer below.

Thirty years ago, when I first began going to the museum, I had just discovered the writing of Loren Eiseley, a curmudgeonly anthropologist who turned an insomniac’s musings into graceful essays. At that time Eiseley was the museum’s curator of early man, and although he died in 1977 his presence can still be felt there. On my nostalgic visit I found his words arching over the alcoves in The Gift of Birds, an exhibit featuring the featherwork of native South Americans. The dioramas, exhibits, and videos are joyous displays of beauty and utility, drawing on skills of generations past. One archway inscription brought the circle back to me, a woman of 60 looking for the past--my own past before certain choices were made, and the past of many generations beyond me--Our lives are the creations of memory and the accompanying power to extend ourselves outward into ideas and relive them.
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